Writing for television: part one

I’ve been a writer of one sort or another for more than 25 years. My first job was when I was 16 years old. It was for my hometown newspaper, The Bulletin, an affiliate of the Daily News in Galveston, Texas. There were three of us on the editorial staff and we put out a 28-page paper every week. My other job at the time was as a car-hop at Sonic, right across the street from that same newspaper. Now you know where the other two writers ate daily.
The transition from newspaper to television writing was difficult at first. My teachers and mentors taught me to condense, write in the active voice and drop all the descriptive narrative. One of my favorite things to do with my print journalism or magazine interns is to “warp” them into television journalists.
We often tell anyone writing for a television news audience to “dumb it down,” or write your words as though you are talking to a child. Although it is true that you want to keep news writing simple and representative to a broad audience, it isn’t true that it’s simple to do.
First of all, I need to admit that writing isn’t necessarily fun for me, or easy, or exciting. And I must say that most of the time, I dread sitting down and plucking away at the keys. Fortunately there’s this thing called a deadline and I just can’t put it off anymore. When I do finally put words on a computer, I discover happily that they do manage to tell a story and I make my deadline.
“Inspiration is often a product of desperation,” says my friend, co-worker, and outdoor mentor Ann Miller.
My role models in television writing are Bob Dotson, a reporter for NBC, and Boyd Hupert, a reporter for KARE 11 News in Minnesota. They both write with a knowledge of poetic literature and history that makes me think they’ve read every book in the world. I don’t have that talent but every once in a while I’ll hear something someone says that resonates with me. And if I didn’t catch it on camera or if the camera is not on my interview subject at the time, but still rolling, then I’ll try to use it in the script.
For example: “The last person to hunt turkey in Red River County wore buckskins in 1897.”
This was mumbled by a biologist wearing a wireless microphone and walking ahead of me while we were on the first Eastern wild turkey hunt after a decade’s effort of restocking wild turkey. I used this in the anchor lead before the video rolled.
And here’s another example: “There’s one for every stump.”
A fishing guide said this, referring to the number of fishing guides that work on Lake Fork in east Texas, when the camera was rolling, but not on him. Another great opener for a story.
Below are some examples and guidelines to keep in mind when you are making that switch from print to television writing. Oh and that first job I had at the Bulletin Newspaper when I was 16 — the newsroom is now a laundromat.
1. Know what the story is about but don’t exclude the extras.
Story: Nesting bald eagles.
Make your phone calls when you get your assignment and interview all the necessary people, but also be open to change. This story is about bald eagles nesting unusually close to a highway. It’s spring and people are always stopping by the roadsides to photograph children and pets in rows of wildflowers. So when I saw a bunch of people on the side of the road not looking at wildflowers, I thought I would use that. Then the police came due to all the traffic and people so I used that, too. Finally, a photographer showed up to cash in on the event so…
2. Tell it as simply as you can.
Story: Chester’s Island.
Use juxtapositions – the old and the young, the wise and the innocent.
Voiceover: “When spring comes, the birds nest and Chester watches.”
Sound on tape: “His motives are pure. He’s not doing it for popularity or anything; he just wants to help the birds.”
Voiceover: “The old protecting the young…”
Sound on tape: Chester, “My plans were to retire when I was 85. I’ve already passed that date and now I’m trying to make 90.”
Voiceover: “…the wise watching over the innocent.”
Sound on tape: Chester, “I’ve been encouraged to make 100.”
In the next issue of Outdoors Unlimited, I’ll conclude this twopart series with more examples and guidelines for applying your skills of writing for print outlets to writing for television. ◊
A member since 2008, Karen Loke has been a TV producer for the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department for the past 17 years. She shoots, writes and edits four video news reports related to the outdoors each month and distributes to news stations throughout the state. Contact her at karen.loke@ tpwd.state.tx.us.

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